A Guide to the Presidential Candidates’ Proposals to Cut Spending

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, Chris Edwards and I have regularly complained that most policymakers have been insufficiently specific when it comes to identifying spending cuts. With the Republican primaries about to get underway, it’s a good time to see what the current crop of presidential aspirants has to offer.

There are multiple ways to skin this cat, but I decided to put together a comparison table based solely on the content found on each candidate’s campaign website. I did not consider past statements or votes, the televised debates, or outside sources (unless linked to by a campaign’s website). The idea is that statements on each candidate’s website should offer the clearest indication of their intentions should they become president. 

Ron Paul is the only candidate who actually produced a proposed federal budget. Therefore, I started with his template and added additional agencies/programs cited on the websites of the other candidates. Again, the idea is to show specifically what the candidates are proposing to cut. Thus, proposed spending reforms such as a Balanced Budget Amendment or a spending cap are not included.

There is a degree of subjectivity in putting this together, but I tried to be fair and consistent. It is for informational purposes only (i.e., it should not be construed as an endorsement of any candidate(s)). Finally, it is possible that proposals were missed, but that could be a reflection of a website’s accessibility to pertinent information.

The following are brief overviews for each candidate (in alphabetical order):

Michele Bachmann

  • Bachmann says she “supports abolishing the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education.” However, she does not say if all of those agencies’ functions would be abolished.
  • Bachmann says she “voted for the Ryan Plan to make sure that Medicare is secure for future generations” but that “the Ryan Plan is just the very first step on health reform, and I voted for it with an asterisk with further reforms in mind.”
  • Bachmann’s statements on foreign policy portend increased military spending.

The number of specific spending cuts on Bachmann’s website is paltry and it’s evident that she supports increased military spending given her hawkish statements on foreign policy.    

Newt Gingrich

  • Gingrich supports federal subsidies for agriculture and energy, but says that most of the Department of Education’s “responsibilities and positions will be eliminated.”
  • On the issue of foreign policy, Gingrich says “Think Big.” Gingrich’s statements on foreign policy portend increased military spending.
  • Gingrich offers a 49-page white paper on entitlement and welfare reform. Proposed reforms to Social Security include personal savings accounts. Medicare reforms include providing premium support for the purchase of private health insurance. Medicaid would “ideally” be block-granted to the states. In addition, the paper lists 184 federal means-tested programs that would be block granted.

Gingrich’s website provides a lot of information, but his spending proposals are a mixed-bag. He is heavy on ideas and reforms, but it appears that the federal government’s hand would also remain heavy. In addition, the budgetary effects of Gingrich’s proposals are murky. For instance, he proposes to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with a “pro-growth” Environmental Solutions Agency.  

Jon Huntsman

  • In an op-ed linked from his website, Huntsman appears to endorse ending “unaffordable subsidies for agriculture and energy.” The website also says that Huntsman will “adopt a comprehensive energy strategy that frees us from foreign oil, that eliminates all energy subsidies, and that levels the playing field for competing fuels and technologies.”
  • Huntsman says that he “will reform entitlement programs – based on the Ryan Plan – while holding true to our nation’s commitments to those in or near retirement.” It is not clear what reforms to Social Security he would embrace.
  • Huntsman’s statements on military spending and foreign policy are more reserved than the hawkish tenor exhibited by the rest of the field – Ron Paul and Gary Johnson excluded.

Huntsman doesn’t offer much when it comes to specific spending cuts. The absence of specifics and details leaves a lot of question marks. Huntsman does not propose any spending increases and his relatively reserved views on foreign policy indicate that military spending cuts could be possible.

Gary Johnson

  • Johnson calls for repealing the Medicare prescription drug benefit and block-granting the entire program – along with Medicaid – to the states. On Social Security, he only proposes to “fix Social Security by changing the escalator from being based on wage growth to inflation.”
  • Johnson says the government should “stop spending on the fiscal stimulus, transportation, energy, housing, and all other special interests.” He also proposes to “reduce or eliminate federal involvement in education” and end “unnecessary farm subsidies.” And Johnson’s proposal to rein in the failed “war on drugs” would generate savings at the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Johnson proposes to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and an end to nation-building. He clearly envisions a less interventionist foreign policy, which should translate into reduced military spending.  

Johnson embraces a sizable reduction in the scope of the federal government’s activities, but more details and elaboration would be helpful – especially on entitlement programs. Johnson’s intentions on foreign policy are best encapsulated by his statement that “it’s time to recognize that you can’t have limited government at home, but big government abroad.” Overall, Johnson’s spending proposals reflect a vision for a federal government more limited in size and scope.

Ron Paul

  • Paul’s “Plan to Restore America” would eliminate the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing & Urban Development, and Interior. Numerous agencies and programs would be eliminated or cut.
  • Paul supports allowing younger people to opt-out of Social Security and Medicare. Medicaid and other mandatory programs like food stamps would be block-granted to the states. Funding would be cut and froze. Further elaboration on his ideas for Social Security and Medicare would be helpful.
  • Paul proposes to end all foreign aid. Military spending cuts would be achieved by bringing troops home from overseas and pursuing a non-interventionist foreign policy.

When it comes to proposing specific spending cuts and identifying the dollars amounts, Paul’s website is unrivaled. He is the only candidate to put together an actual budget proposal. Paul’s spending proposals would amount to the largest reduction in the size and scope of the federal government of any candidate.     

Rick Perry

  • Perry proposes to eliminate the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy. However, he is not proposing that all of the functions contained within those departments be eliminated. For example, Perry proposes “block-granting all funding for elementary and secondary education,” which means federal taxpayers would still be on the hook.
  • Perry’s proposals on entitlements are consistent with the GOP field. Proposed Social Security reforms include the creation of personal retirement accounts for younger workers. He would block-grant Medicaid to the states and Medicare would be “reformed” to be “sustainable for the long-term.”
  • In comparison to economic issues, Perry has relatively little to say on foreign policy. Although Perry does not strike the hawkish tone of other GOP candidates, there’s nothing on his website to suggest that he’ll rein in military spending.

Like Gingrich, Perry’s website contains a healthy amount of content. Perry deserves credit for offering specific spending cuts and elaborating on why he believes those cuts would be prudent. However, unlike Paul, Perry proposes to eliminate departments without also eliminating the functions contained within them. And unlike Johnson and Paul, Perry does not embrace a reduced U.S. military presence abroad, which implies that he would not rein in military spending. 

Mitt Romney

  • Romney’s “Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” is 87 pages long. Nine pages are devoted to fiscal policy. Those nine pages don’t offer much in the way of specific spending cuts. Romney does suggest some good cuts, but they are not large in budgetary terms.
  • When it comes to entitlements, Romney has virtually nothing to say on Social Security. He does propose block-granting Medicaid to the states. On Medicare, Romney says “the plan put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan makes important strides in the right direction by keeping the system solvent and introducing market-based dynamics.” Romney then says that his “own plan will differ, but it will share those objectives.”
  • The foreword to Romney’s 44-page paper on foreign policy was written by the prominent neoconservative, Eliot Cohen. It’s safe to say that military spending would not be threatened on Romney’s watch.

Despite the fact that Romney’s website offers a lot of content, he doesn’t offer many specifics when it comes to spending. The spending cuts that Romney does specify are not easily found on his website. They are also relatively small cuts that would have little effect on the size and scope of the federal government. It’s also evident that Romney supports increased military spending.

Rick Santorum

  • Santorum’s website doesn’t offer many details or elaboration, but he does list a number of proposals to cut spending. For example, he proposes to “eliminate all agriculture and energy subsidies within four years letting the markets work.”
  • Santorum’s proposals for entitlement programs are vague: “reform Social Security and Medicare for sustainable retirements.” However, he does allude to having supported private retirement accounts in the past. He also proposes to “block grant Medicaid, Housing, Job Training, and other social services to the States.”
  • Santorum’s statements on foreign policy – arguably the most hawkish of the candidates – clearly indicate that he favors increases in military spending.

Santorum’s statements on foreign policy put him at odds with Johnson’s view that “you can’t have limited government at home, but big government abroad.” However, he does suggest broad spending cuts – although more details and elaboration would be helpful.